Jottings 17th December 2021 a Christmas Tale of Berganders

You may have noticed that several weeks have passed by since my previous jottings, and I am sorry to say that this week will be my last for reasons explained later.

The River Orwell has always been special for me. I treasure the photos (black and white) of my parents promenading along the Ipswich Docks just after the First World War, my mother in her lace-up boots, smart long coat, and large black hat. My father, a veteran of The Great War, resplendent in a suit, waistcoat, trilby hat, and his watch and chain – the watch presented to those who did not succumb on the battlefields of the Somme. The Orwell is special to me also because I learned to swim at the high tides at Nacton Shores and furthering my poor technique when, as Priory Heath infants, we were walked through the Gainsborough and Greenwich estates to Piper’s Vale, a smelly open-air pool just above the Orwell’s bank.

In my early days, when playing truant from my junior school, we used to make our way across the nearby Nacton Airport (home only to a wrecked B17, a Blenheim or two and the odd abandoned Spitfire). From next-door grounds of Alnesbourne Priory to Mambrooke where its stream entered the River Orwell, and then on to Nacton and Levington where we trudged regardless of whether it was high or low tide. My mother would despair on my return at the state of my muddy school shoes (I only had one pair) and my torn trousers, but despite all this, my knowledge of the River Orwell and its residents gathered pace. I recognised the sailing barges by their spinnakers and mast flags, but it was the Orwell birds with which I really became au fait – the redshank, greenshank, various plovers, curlew (oh, the wonderful curlew) the cormorants and then the duck, in particular the gorgeous shelduck. I treasure the time that I stood beside the then famous one and only late Percy Edwards admiring a flotilla of shelduck. What a memory!

Shelduck Christchurch Park Ipswich
Three Shelduck Reg Snook 2019

Shelduck (tadorna tadorna) are, in my opinion, the most splendid of ducks. It is a large bird the size of a small goose and we are lucky to have them on the Orwell. Most yachtsmen and fishermen do not give them a second glance because they are, well, just shelduck and shelduck have always been there on our river. Is there a better sight than a brood of ‘shellies’ with the parents keeping a watchful eye on them? Whether floating on the water at high tide or searching for crustaceans on the vast mud, it is always a pleasure to view the Orwell’s shelduck. I love their glamorous appearance and the fact that their nest containing a dozen or more large eggs is situated down a hole which may be in a bank, in a tree, a gap in a stone wall or even in an upturned boat. Something else peculiar to our estuary shelduck is that when the young are threatened by a marauding large gull they can dive safely under the water’s surface.

Renowned wildlife artist, Charles Tunnicliffe, loved to paint and draw shelduck. One of the first books that I came across was entitled Rivemouth by Brian Vesey Fitzgerald (published in 1949) about the natural history of an estuary and illustrated by Tunnicliffe. I would like to think that he was describing the Orwell, but it was most probably the River Thames. However, he too loved shelduck and the illustrations by Tunnicliffe are superb. It is interesting that Vesey Fitzgerald refers to shelduck as berganders, a name used by ancient marsh-men and is an old English word for this species of duck. Bergander means ‘patch’. Interestingly, ‘skjoldungr’ (the Norse equivalent) is also the word for a piebald horse. I suppose that fits as a shelduck in the loosest of terms may be described as piebald. It certainly looks piebald from a distance although, at closer range, it has a defined bottle-green head, an orange chest band, pink bill and legs and black flight feathers which have an iridescent purple and green colouring making an altogether extremely beautiful bird.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about shelduck and the reason why they are so common and obligingly tame is that you cannot eat them! They taste horrible – I know this because I have tried, being very salty and almost as distasteful as Canada geese. And so, the Orwell shelduck remains protected mainly because they are inedible and hopefully they will continue to grace our river – sometimes a polluted river although it was even more so when I was a kid. When I returned home, my mother said that my shoes stunk – I cannot begin to think what was really in that mud. I would suggest that if you are interested in our shelduck, then the Strand at Freston is a good place to observe them where you can sit in your car to do this or view them from the foreshore at Pinmill.

As I said at the beginning, I am sad to say that this will be my final jottings having put pen to paper over the past 13 years every fortnight for the Friends of Christchurch Park noticeboard and later its website. I have enjoyed doing this but lock-down and other limitations, such as being removed from my bike by a car and not venturing forth on it since have combined to make it more difficult to write on current observations/happenings in the park and countryside. There is a limit too to observations in my garden. Over these 13 years, I have seen a decrease in species and numbers of birds in our park together with an increase of corvids and large marauding gulls. For instance, we have lost lesser spotted woodpeckers, turtle doves, spotted flycatchers, red-backed shrikes, nuthatches, and the majority of other species have declined alarmingly. On the other hand, we were lucky enough to enjoy Mabel, our famous tawny owl, for many years and, for those interested in ornithology, there has been an increase in birds of prey. Who would have thought that from our park we would be able to view buzzard, red kite, peregrine, goshawk and, would you believe, sea eagle? We all know that nothing goes on forever and, as they say, every good thing comes to an end. I have enjoyed my writings and will continue to do so in another direction. Best wishes to all and farewell though not goodbye.

Reg Snook